Editor's note: A letter from the elected supervisors of five townships to John Cournan, pres…
Upset over how the removal of Morgan Boyd’s seat on a foundation board played out in public, a group of five Lawrence County townships have banded together over not being included in chamber or economic development happenings.
The townships of Neshannock, Union, Shenango, Mahoning and Wilmington sent a group letter Thursday to John Cournan as president of the chamber of commerce foundation, economic development and the chamber itself, protesting the recent decisions of the board to remove Boyd, the commissioner chairman, and replace him with Commissioner Loretta Spielvogel.
Boyd was removed as a member of the foundation board and of the chamber of commerce and Lawrence County Economic Development Corporation boards on Jan. 14.
Boyd said Cournan asked him over breakfast to apologize for his previous comments critical of Forward Lawrence — a $175,000 plan to drive county economic development — or resign from the board. He did neither. On Jan. 12, Boyd wrote a guest column in the New Castle News disagreeing with the chamber’s investment in the Forward Lawrence initiative. Then, in a private meeting Jan. 14, Boyd was removed by vote from the boards and Spielvogel appointed to replace him, according to a news release.
Cournan said Thursday afternoon Boyd went public with his disagreement with the Forward Lawrence plan without discussing his dissatisfaction with it among other board members and said his comments “could not be farther from the truth.” He thanked Boyd for his service on the boards and welcomed Spielvogel.
“The two basic tenets of serving on a board are that, it’s not whether you agree with what the organization does, but in spite of that, it’s important that board members support the mission of the organization, and that they show proper respect to all board members,” Cournan said.
Boyd didn’t attend a November kickoff of the Forward Lawrence plan that was presented by an out-of-state consultant and site selector who was hired to prepare it, saying it mirrors — in part — the county’s comprehensive plan. The event was sponsored jointly by the foundation, the chamber of commerce and the Lawrence County Economic Development Corp., all of which were merged under one umbrella a few years ago.
Since that meeting, a series of letters and emails among chamber members and the chamber executive director, Alex McCoy, have circulated among the membership of all three boards and been obtained by The News. Some of the letters, exchanged between McCoy and Cournan indicate McCoy was taking the chamber to task for its structure with economic development and chamber under one organization, and its effectiveness.
McCoy, contacted Thursday, acknowledged the chamber and economic development boards have called a meeting for Friday morning, but he would not discuss what the meeting is about, citing a confidentiality agreement in his contract. Cournan confirmed that the meeting is to be held, but would not specify its purpose.
The papers also discuss Neshannock Township’s failure to redesignate the 300-plus acre Millennium Park, owned by the Lawrence County Economic Development Corp., as a tax-free Keystone Opportunity Zone for another 12 years. The correspondence also vaguely references an unidentified proposal from Amerikohl for that site.
The corporation last year appealed to the county assessment appeals board to lower the assessment — and ultimately the taxes — on the Millennium Park tract once eyed for a microchip development that never materialized. The board denied the assessment appeal and the economic development corporation filed an appeal to the denial in the Lawrence County Court of Common Pleas. That action is pending.
An email to Cournan sent Thursday, and copied to the New Castle News, prefaced the supervisors’ letter and states, “We come to you and your board as a group of concerned elected officials in Lawrence County regarding comments in the New Castle News, calls requesting comments from the New Castle News surrounding actions of the LCRCC Foundation Board, LCRCC Board and the LCEDC Board. It is difficult for any of us to comment on the actions of your boards, since we are never included in these meetings. Most recently, the New Castle News has contacted some of our municipalities regarding comments that your CEO and employees have made concerning our municipalities in a very negative manner.
“The foundation board is a group of well-respected business people who live in our communities, how can you allow this to go on and expect positive outcomes for this county?”
The News contacted only Neshannock Township Supervisor Leslie S. Bucci, questioning comments made about Neshannock and Millennium Park in the email exchanges in the paperwork that circulated. The News also had asked about the chamber director’s reference to the Amerikohl proposal for the Millennium Park site in Neshannock Township and what it was. Bucci said she knew nothing about it.
The letter to Cournan was signed by Neshannock supervisors Bucci, Stephen Demofonte and Joseph Gierlach; Mahoning supervisors Vito Yeropoli, Gary Pezzuolo and Mark Sackin; Union supervisors Larry Brown, Vince Gentile and Rob Eckert; Wilmington supervisors Dan Kennedy, Russell John Zehner and Brian Swisher; and Shenango supervisors Frank Augustine, Brandon Rishel and Albert Burick III.
Cournan’s response to the letter was in agreement.
“I don’t believe we’re doing as well as we should be on the communications side,” he said. “Business and economic development are a team sport, and it takes everyone working together to be effective. That’s probably the area where we can collaborate and do better with the stakeholders in our community.”
He said the organizations plan to officially provide a response to the townships’ letter.
“We have the utmost respect for the people who serve in those positions, and they do it for little or no compensation,” Cournan said. “I look for it as an opportunity to hit the reset button and to have a more positive and productive relationship going forward. We don’t disagree with those comments. It is our goal that we get better in those areas. The letter is a genuine opportunity for us to connect with them in a tangible way
”The Chamber Foundation was organized as a private, nonprofit in 2016. It accepts grants and donations from public and private sources to assist the Lawrence County Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Lawrence County Economic Development Corporation to fulfill their programs of work. None of the three are public entities and their meetings are private, according to the release.